LINKS
2017-12-06 / Featured / Front Page

How Catherine Muir, and her family, are battling back leukemia

BY PETER GALUSZKA CONTRIBUTING WRITER


While undergoing treatment for blood cancer, Catherine Muir has been embraced by friends and strangers alike, receiving donations and gestures of moral support, like this signed Pittsburgh Steelers helmet. 
JENNY McQUEEN While undergoing treatment for blood cancer, Catherine Muir has been embraced by friends and strangers alike, receiving donations and gestures of moral support, like this signed Pittsburgh Steelers helmet. JENNY McQUEEN Catherine’s fight started when she least expected. The Muir family had just returned from a week-long vacation at the beach, a much-needed respite after spending nearly a month moving into a new home in Magnolia Green.

With a little more than a month left before school started, in late July, 11-year-old Catherine Muir, a gregarious red-haired soccer fanatic, went to the doctor for a checkup. Catherine was about to start sixth grade at Tomahawk Creek Middle School, and she and her twin sister, Molly, needed shots so they could participate in afterschool sports.

The routine appointment ceased being routine when the doctor noticed something wrong in Catherine’s bloodwork. She needed to see a specialist, so her parents took her to the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. Additional tests showed Catherine’s blood contained unusually low levels of platelets, which help a person’s blood clot.


The Muir family at their home in Magnolia Green. From left to right: Emma, Molly, Catherine, Abbey, Amy and Joshua. 
JENNY McQUEEN The Muir family at their home in Magnolia Green. From left to right: Emma, Molly, Catherine, Abbey, Amy and Joshua. JENNY McQUEEN The diagnosis was ominous: acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer and a potential death sentence.

Within three days, the Muir family’s lives were upended. Catherine began an ordeal that required weeks in a hospital bed. Three rounds of chemotherapy ended with mixed results. The family of six – parents Amy and Joshua, and four girls: Catherine, Molly, Emma and Abbey – were suddenly in the fight of their lives. “After the doctor’s office visit, the ball really started rolling,” Joshua recalls.


Friends launched a "strange socks" campaign, bringing funny socks to Catherine during her VCU hospital stays. Here, she and her twin sister, Molly, show off some of her sillier pairs. 
JENNY McQUEEN Friends launched a "strange socks" campaign, bringing funny socks to Catherine during her VCU hospital stays. Here, she and her twin sister, Molly, show off some of her sillier pairs. JENNY McQUEEN And Catherine has rolled right along with it. Dubbed “The Little Terminator” and “Tank” by her doctors, Catherine has kept a cheery disposition throughout, buoyed in part by an outpouring of community support manifesting in gestures both large and small. And heading into the Christmas holiday, recent tests show she’s beating back the cancer.

Catherine is due for another round of chemotherapy on Dec. 12, and then doctors will attempt a more permanent fix just before Christmas: a stem cell transplant from her older sister, Emma, a junior at Cosby High School. The procedure, if successful, will essentially replace Catherine’s cancer-laden immune system with Emma’s healthy one.

While Catherine’s twin seemed an obvious match, tests revealed that Emma was a “10-10” match, says Catherine’s mother, making her an even better fit.

“I’m kind of excited but I am a little bit scared because I don’t know what might happen,” says Catherine, decked in a gray Mickey Mouse T-shirt at her kitchen table in her family’s Magnolia Green home the day after Thanksgiving. She and Molly celebrated their 12th birthday earlier that month.

Life had seemed to be chugging along just fine for the Muir family. Catherine’s father, Joshua, 43, and mother, Amy, 41, work in medical research. They had just built a new house in Magnolia Green. But for the last few months, the Muirs have been shuttling back and forth to VCU during Catherine’s lengthy hospital says. They even brought in a refrigerator and other gear to make life easier. Luckily, Joshua works at Virginia Biotechnology Research Park just four blocks from the hospital.

Amy, who works on clinical projects from her home office, says since late July life has been a blur. With four daughters to raise, she’d learned to be very organized. That went out the window with Catherine’s illness. “We have been taking it one day at a time, sometimes moment to moment,” she says.

There were upsetting ups and downs as the family waited anxiously for test results after rounds of chemotherapy that sometimes took weeks. The original diagnosis revealed that 38 percent of Catherine’s bone marrow cells were cancerous. After the first round of chemotherapy, the rate dropped to zero. After round two, it inched back up to 0.2 percent, which meant the cancer was coming back. After the third round of chemo, the cancer rate dropped to 0.08 percent, showing progress. The latest tests show she’s now ready for the transplant.  

As news of Catherine’s struggle circulated within their network of friends, people began to approach the family with questions and offers of encouragement. Amy and Joshua have colleagues and friends all over the world due to their research-related work, and the word got out quickly, making the rounds on social media. “People kept reaching out to us, so we started to create a Facebook page,” Joshua explains. Their idea was that it would help to be open about the situation, which they dubbed “Catherine’s Fight.”

Soon, total strangers from as far away as Buenos Aires and New Zealand were commenting on and keeping up with Catherine’s progress via Facebook. Friends of Amy and Joshua had a daughter who collected interesting socks, and from this sprang the idea of a “strange socks” campaign as a way to show Catherine moral support. Well-wishers visiting her at VCU started bringing her eccentric socks, including a pair that look like giant Tootsie Rolls. Sock photos decorated the Facebook page.

A love of sports extends beyond soccer in the Muir household. As graduates of the University of Virginia, Amy and Joshua remain loyal fans of the Wahoos; Catherine, for her part, is a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan. As it happened, a friend of the family knew Heath Miller, who starred on U.Va.’s football team before spending 11 years playing for the Steelers. Miller, now retired, arranged to send Catherine an autographed Steelers’ helmet and autographed U.Va. jerseys. In October, Catherine also got to ceremoniously flip an ice hockey puck at a Richmond Generals game dedicated in her honor. And between hospital stays, Catherine was able to continue practicing with her twin sister’s travel soccer team. Catherine likes playing right wing and mid-field. Molly prefers mid-field.

Fighting leukemia is a highly expensive affair and the Muirs aren’t sure what it might eventually cost. Joshua says their insurance company has been “great” and Amy says she keeps up with an insurance case manager in weekly phone talks. But here, too, they’ve received support from near and far. XL Sports World Richmond held its first annual Kicking Kids Cancer fundraiser this year, raising over $10,000 for Catherine’s medical costs. Tomahawk Creek Middle dedicated its annual “No One Fights Alone” fundraiser to the Muirs, netting more than $3,000. The list of local schools, organizations and individuals who have stepped in and spearheaded fundraisers goes on.

A friend of the family also launched a “Go Fund Me” online campaign to raise money. While donations are ongoing, in four months it has surpassed its original goal, bringing in more than $50,000.

“It wasn’t something we would have put up on our own,” Joshua says of the Go Fund Me page. “It’s an exception for us. You have to open yourself up for help.”

The next step is going through the stem cell transplant. They’ll watch for key checkpoints along the way to see if Catherine’s body accepts the transplant.

One thing seems certain. Catherine will be spending Christmas in the hospital. To make up for this, the family held twin Thanksgiving celebrations at Catherine’s two grandmothers’ homes. The family has a “Santa bag” tradition – a giant sack of mystery gifts that gets passed around – that they didn’t want Catherine to miss out on.

If all goes well, Catherine wants the Muirs to all go to an exotic place for vacation. “I’m thinking about Costa Rica,” she says. “I like monkeys.” ¦

Return to top